Red Ribbon and its Far-Reaching Legacy

Adrienne Alexander returns from beautiful Las Vegas for this year’s Red Ribbon Show.
Adrienne Alexander returns from beautiful Las Vegas for this year’s Red Ribbon Show.

By Daniel Borgen, PQ Monthly

On August 29, 2015, the Imperial Sovereign Court of the Willamette Empire (a 38 year-old Salem non-profit LGBT organization), will host the “Eighth Annual Red Ribbon Show” in Salem at the Red Lion Hotel. This annual event, the mid-Willamette valley’s largest annual HIV/AIDS charity event, established in 2008, has raised tens of thousands of dollars for a variety of local HIV/AIDS organizations across the Northwest.

We had a chance to chat with the fundraiser’s architect, Jonathan Reitan, about this year’s—his last—extravaganza (note: the show will continue, Reitan’s involvement will not):

PQ Monthly: I’ve seen you, in the past, post some stories on Facebook about what has inspired you to do this work over the years. What or who has been your biggest inspiration?
Jonathan Reitan: My inspiration behind the Red Ribbon Show came as a way for me to give back to the HIV/AIDS community that gave so much to myself after I tested HIV positive. The HIV poz “elders” who taught me more about meds and taking care of myself then any doctor ever has. The people who in the 1980s and 1990s raised funds for our first AIDS organizations while at the same time burying their partners and friends. These people often had so little, had to fight the hardest, overcame so much for us to have what we have today.

PQ: The questions on a lot of peoples’ minds—why the end, and why now?
Reitan: As someone who never gives up, it was hard for me to make the decision to move on from running the show and pass on my duties to a new committee. In 2009, when I hosted the 2nd annual event, I was very sick and in the advanced stages of AIDS. I wanted the event to be bigger than the year before and I let my health suffer because of it. As I look back, I realize how stupid that was and that if I don’t ever give up some responsibility then there’s no stopping me letting the Red Ribbon Show completely consume my life. We have enough new volunteers and committee members now for me to let the reigns go so that I can focus on my own life and health for once, and let some fresh ideas and new faces take charge.

PQ:  What evolution have you seen in our community’s response to HIV, and how has stigma changed, in your perspective?
Reitan: It’s obvious that after 35 years, advancements in medicine, treatments, education and awareness have evolved to where people are living longer, more services are offered and more people are getting tested; however the fear and stigma is still there, and it might always be. No one wants this disease, it’s a scary thing, and it just takes people like myself to stand up and say, “I’m no different than you but here’s how I can help you understand HIV, how to live with it and how to avoid getting it.”

The Eighth Annual Red Ribbon Show includes a variety show featuring drag queens from as far as Las Vegas, Seattle, Ohio, Boise, and Sacramento, as well as a live auction and silent auction featuring vacation packages, original artwork, gift baskets, winery tours, hotel stays and “Nights on the Town” packages and much more. This event will also feature information tables from nearby HIV/AIDS organizations offering services in the Marion County area.

This year’s beneficiaries are HIV Alliance and Oregon AIDS Memorial.

HIV Alliance provides support, advocacy, referral services and emergency financial assistance to people living with HIV/AIDS in Salem (Marion County) as well to those living in Lane, Coos, Curry, Josephine, Douglas, Lincoln, Lake, Jackson and Klamath counties.

The Oregon AIDS Memorial, Inc. organization is working to build a memorial to honor Oregon’s men, women, and children who have died from AIDS, as well as commemorate and celebrate the efforts of the caregivers and activists who responded to fight the disease, and to recognize the ongoing crisis.

This year’s event has already raised over $22,000 for the beneficiaries through online fundraising, sponsorships, and online auctions.

“I’m very proud to say that our event grows by the year, our entertainment line-up gets better and better and our charities go home with more money than the previous year. However, our fight is not over. We still do not have a cure for this disease. Our young people are still testing HIV positive and our older generation of AIDS survivors are still dying. The Red Ribbon Show is about entertainment and fundraising, but it’s also about educating the community about HIV, supporting those living with it, and remembering those no longer with us,” says Jonathan Reitan, founder and producer of the annual Red Ribbon Show.

The public is invited to attend the all-ages show and auction on Saturday, August 29 at the Red Lion Hotel (3301 Market St. NE) with a $10 cover. Doors open at 5pm, silent auction starts at 5 p.m., and entertainment starts at 6 p.m.